What happens when everyone's a winner?: Some ask whether feel-good trophies are actually good for children

By Mike Reiss
Boston Globe
Feb. 23, 2006

When a youth basketball league in Framingham finishes its season next month, every fifth- and sixth-grader will receive a shiny trophy. Even those on the last-place team.

''We want them to be happy and come back to play the following year," said the Temple Beth Am Brotherhood league's director, Rich Steckloff.

In communities across Boston's western suburbs, at the end of long seasons on the soccer pitch, hoop court, or baseball diamond, kids are getting trophies not for winning championships, but for simply participating.

Some say there's no harm in awarding trophies to all, that it's a reward for playing a sport that keeps them fit. And it's hard to argue with the warm feeling a parent gets when their wide-eyed child receives a prize.

But others have raised questions about whether getting trophies so easily is the best thing for youngsters.

''There is something inherently good about trying to raise kids' feelings about themselves, but there has to be balance," said Leonard Zaichkowsky, a Boston University professor and director of its sport and exercise psychology training program, shared by BU's schools of education and medicine. ''We also have to teach kids to be mentally tough, to take criticism, to experience failure, to learn that somebody wins and somebody loses.

''We have to take teachable moments to reach kids and explain that there are going to be setbacks and losses, and to be able to cope with that," he said.

Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, said the trophy explosion was a product of the self-esteem movement, which began in the 1970s and gained momentum in the '80s with promises of more successful children. The movement started to unravel a decade later, when questions were raised about its results, said Baumeister, who has specialized in self-esteem issues.

Baumeister said feel-good trophies don't serve any purpose.

''The trophies should go to the winners. Self-esteem does not lead to success in life. Self-discipline and self-control do, and sports can help teach those," he said.

At least one area league is cutting back on trophies. In the Northborough/Southborough Pop Warner program, president Mike Vulcano said, each player this fall will receive a medal, rather than the engraved trophy each of its nearly 200 participants (ages 8 to 14) received last year.

Vulcano, who turns 50 next month, said it's OK for children to experience disappointment.

''I'm not sure where the mentality came from, or how it got to this point, but the stuff given out to kids -- the 'thanks for participating' trophies' -- it seems we're more worried about not hurting feelings," Vulcano said.

''It's a tough call and I don't know what the right answer is. But I certainly know it's not a good idea to keep rewarding people, day after day, when they don't earn it. They lose their workmanship. I don't know if we're doing kids justice in the way we're handling it."

The boys' lacrosse coach at Algonquin Regional High School, Dave Roche, said he supports participation trophies, but with the clear message that the reward is not for winning, but for completing a full season.

''My three kids save theirs on a shelf. I think they can be a positive thing, good for self-esteem. Receiving a participatory medal or small trophy . . . is a nice way to cap off the season. For the younger grades, kindergarten through fourth, it's a really big thing. It's a nice commemoration of a season, and gives an athlete the opportunity to look back on the season, even as they're into their adult years," he said.

Roche, however, had a problem with a trophy received by one of his children with the word champion engraved on it. The team wasn't the champion that year, and Roche felt it sent a mixed message.

Belmont resident Alfie Kohn, author of ''No Contest: The Case against Competition," and who has written on human behavior, education, and parenting issues, said the trophies are a symptom of an overcompetitive society.

''The problem, I think, is not too many trophies, but the idea that kids should be set against one another, so one can succeed only if others fail," Kohn said. ''A considerable amount of evidence shows that competition in itself undermines kids' interest in whatever it is they're doing, as well as their relationships and their psychological health."

Zaichkowsky, of Boston University, said there's too much emphasis on trophies when it is the inner rewards that should count.

''What you want is for kids to be involved for the intrinsic value -- skill acquisition, doing it for fun," he said. ''You don't need a trophy. That can be more of a parent thing at times -- 'my kid has it' -- or the parent saying 'get the trophy, get the trophy.' "

Russ Fortini, who owns Natick Awards Unlimited, a trophy shop, said his business has remained steady in recent years. While acknowledging he can profit from leagues that buy awards for every player, Fortini said he's a proponent of them.

''It's all about the kids, and if they put the time in they should be rewarded. I have kids who come into my shop and ask me, 'Can I have that trophy?'

''I tell them they can as long as they go out and earn it by participating in a sport. Kids love trophies," Fortini said.

The basketball league Steckloff runs in Framingham gives trophies to every player in the fifth and sixth grades. Life gets tougher after that. In the seventh- and eighth-grade division, the top four teams get them. And in the high school division, only the top two teams receive them.

Steckloff, 50, said he has one trophy on his mantle, from 1968 when he was named Most Improved Athlete at a summer camp. He remembered how much it meant to him at the time. Meanwhile, his 17-year-old daughter, Jillian, has almost 40 trophies, many from tennis tournaments across New England, on a groaning shelf in her bedroom. They are carefully organized.

The trophies in the front row are for winning a championship or high school sports awards, and they receive the prominent position because they are reflective of ''hard work and good performance," she said.

''I would have to say my early trophies from basketball, from youth leagues, they're not as important because they were based on participation," she said. ''They're on the back of the shelf."

She remembered, however, that it wasn't long ago when she coveted any type of trophy.

''When you're younger and don't have that many trophies, any hardware is pretty exciting, if it's earned or not."

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